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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Silent Heroes - A story retold

Its Easter and I haven't celebrated. I was lonely and flat broke after losing my purse. Yet I am happy. The reason is here - my story getting published in Silent Heroes.tv - an Istanbul based magazine focused on positive journalism. They won the United Nations X-Cultural Reporting Award 2010 and I am happy to be a part of the family! Here is the story:


Giant leap of India’s ‘downtrodden’


Teenage community reporter confronts tyranny, corruption

Mukesh Rajak of Jagdishpur village in eastern India has unusual friends. They sit together on a Sunday afternoon, sipping tea and talking of the village school. The teachers are not regular in the class. Men in the mid and late 40s ask 18-year old Rajak to help.
He confidently advises them to “draft and sign an application for the district education officer, Jharkhand.
The elderly villagers are no ordinary folks but come from powerful ‘Brahmins’ and ‘Kshtriyas’ classes. Rajak, on the contrary, is a ‘Dalit’, the lowest category.
The Hindu society consists of four major classes having a vertical position in the social structure and at the lowest of the order lies ‘Dalit’ which literally means ‘oppressed’.
Despite sincere efforts across India, Dalits are still treated as untouchables and handed out the lowest of jobs such as cleaning drains, toilettes, sweeping streets, skinning animals and even manual scavenging.
Evidently, the Brahmins sitting with Rajak and offering advice is a small revolution.
“People call me when I am passing by their homes and offer me a seat. They want my advice and some even address me ‘sir,” Rajak explains.
Only a year ago, this same group considered Rajak as an untouchable as well. After his mother’s death in early childhood, Rajak’s father remarried. Rajak’s step-mother did not treat him well, so he grew up lonely.
“At home, there was nobody to play with. When I went out in the village, other boys would not play with a Dalit,” he recalls the bitter memories of childhood.
They believed that Rajak was ‘dirty’.
His life started to change for the better in April, 2010 when Rajak joined Video Volunteers, a non-profit group that trains young people from poor and marginalized backgrounds to report on their communities. He learnt the basics of video making for a fortnight. After the training, he was given a pocket-size Kodak HD ZX1 camera. Rajak returned home, ready to work as a ‘Community Correspondent’ for ‘IndiaUnheard’ – a web TV dedicated to community specific news.
It took him over a month to shoot his first video on the bamboo artisans in his village. “It was a difficult phase; nobody had ever spoken to a camera before and whenever I tried to interview them, they shied away”, says Rajak.
Rajak now wanted to make hard-hitting videos i.e. expos̩ of the corrupt and the mighty. Because he lives in Jharkhand Рone of the most corrupt states of India, such passion is easy to understand.
Once, a few school children told him that the teachers were taking bribes. “The charge us for chalks, dusters and, even examinations fees,” said eight-year old Haseena who shares his neighborhood.
In government-runs schools, education is totally free. When Rajak asked the children to complain to the headmaster
, he was informed that he was always ‘drunk’.
“Here is a corruption story right in my community,” Rajak noticed. Next day, he went to the school with his camera, asking the teacher if he took bribes.
Once the video was soon published on Video Volunteers’ IndiaUnheard website, Rajak downloaded it on his mobile and went to the officials concerned.
“I want to complaint against a school teacher. He takes alcohol while on duty and asks for bribes from students,” he said. The officer looked up and saw a boy – Rajak appears younger than his age – standing before her. She was rather amused and asked causally, ‘do you have proof?’
Rajak was ready to present the entire case.
“The way he came to me with the video, a well-written application and even a certificate from his organization that said he was a community reporter, he made my work quite easy,” says Amanda Kumari, Block Education Officer, Jharkhand.
Within a week, she visited the village school, spoke to the students and ordered the teacher to be demoted from his post. In December, 700 students of the school appeared in exams, without paying any bribes.
“Every year, my father had to buy a steel plate to my class teacher before I could take a test. But not any more after Rajak’s video. I want to be like him in future,” says 12-year old Ashmeena Khatoon, from a Jagdishpur village.
Since then, he follows a simple strategy: listen to community members, make the video, and take action whichever way possible. Every day he gets phone calls from someone who has a story that has gone unheard.
Rubia Bibi was branded a ‘witch’ and tortured, a man who got a job, but can’t join because his boss wants a bribe and many more.
As Rajak notes down the story ideas, he prioritizes them according to impact. Shooting the video on the ‘witch’, he informs the Muslim woman about the recently passed anti-witch law. Next day, she is at the police station, citing the law to seek protection.
“I am exposing the wrong as I see it and from where it affects me and my community directly. As a victim, I cannot be a mere observant”, he explains.
Over the last 6 months, Rajak’s responsibility has expanded from one village to a cluster of 60 villages. On January 12, he was honored for this excellent community reporting. The villagers burst crackers and distributed sweets as Rajak received from State’s Chief Minister Arjun Munda the honor – a citation, a shawl and a cash prize of Rs 5,100 (equivalent to 80 Euro or $115).
‘We are proud to have a reporter like you who is working for his community’, said the minister, according to Rajak.
The real award, however, is the chair that Rajak is offered while visiting the homes of his higher caste neighbors. “It feels great to be treated equal. This, for me is the real change,” he says with a broad smile.

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